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From the beginning of European occupation in Australia, the specimens of the flora and fauna encountered were collected. The great interest by European naturalists in this 'land of contrarieties', together with the growing competitive imperial acquisitiveness of the great museums, saw large shipments of specimens of flora and fauna sent back to Europe, where descriptions and studies were published in the scientific literature. The small convict colony lacked naturalists to describe the new world encountered.
In 1827, when the idea for a museum was proposed, the impetus came from the desire to procure the 'many rare and curious specimens of Natural History' for naturalists in England. The early museum collections were acquired solely for display - for the edification and entertainment of the public. In 1832, Dr George Bennett, medical practitioner and naturalist, visited the Museum and described the infant institution in his 'Wanderings in New South Wales...':
'the ornithological collection is by far the best, both for the number, and being beautifully stuffed and 'set up' in attitudes... There are also several of the mammalia, and reptiles of the colony in the collection.'
Bennett was appointed Curator in 1835, and published the first catalogue of the Museum's collections in 1837: 'A Catalogue of the Specimens of Natural History and Miscellaneous Curiosities deposited in the Australian Museum'.
William Holmes, first head of the Museum, was also its first collector. His career was brief as he was accidentally shot on 23 August 1831 while collecting at Moreton Bay in Queensland.
Collectors after Holmes included John Roach, 'collector and bird stuffer', William Sheridan Wall, who collected along the Murrumbidgee and was later Curator, George Masters, who in the decade from 1864 collected in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and Lord Howe Island, and Alexander Morton, who collected throughout the 1870s-1890s.
The early collectors were often trained taxidermists, but when collections began to be acquired for local research purposes, fieldwork became the responsibility of scientists.
It was under the curatorship of Gerard Krefft, curator of the Museum from 1860 to 1874, that the Australian Museum became recognised as a scientific institution in its own right. Krefft built up the research collections of the Museum, actively exchanging specimens with European naturalists, and described many new animals in local and overseas journals. Krefft was succeeded by Edward Ramsay, who oversaw major additions to the collections, including 18,000 birds and the acquisition of Francis Day's collection of Indian fishes. The recruitment of scientific staff in the 1880s brought the establishment of the scientific departments in the Museum, with each Curator being both researcher and collection manager until the 1980s, when the two functions were separated.
The early interest in collecting focused on animals, rocks and minerals, and fossils. The first Australian Museum catalogue in 1837 lists only 25 items which came from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Between 1840 and 1854, only 21 further artefacts were added - and none were Aboriginal. Some of this lack of interest can be explained by the interests of the people involved in running the Museum, which were predominantly zoological and mineralogical, and in part by the lack of interest by the colonists in the culture of the indigenous people.
The collection displayed in the Ethnographic Court at the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879, was lost in the Garden Palace fire in 1882. It is estimated 2,000 objects were lost. Ramsay actively sought new specimens, and by 1889, 7,500 new objects had been acquired. Sydney was a major port of call between the Pacific region and Europe, and the Museum traded in objects and specimens, by purchase or donation, with traders, ships captains, colonial officials, merchants, missionaries, and by an active exchange program with other museums and by field trips and participation in expeditions.
Interest in First Nations culture remained low, and artefacts from Melanesia dominated the collection until the early 20th century. Change came with the work of Robert Etheridge, Curator from 1887 to 1891, who, although a palaeontologist, was interested in Aboriginal prehistory, carried out site excavations, and actively built up the anthropological collection. His assistant, W.W Thorpe, was appointed first Museum ethnologist in 1906, who was followed by Fred McCarthy who was Curator from until 1964.
Until the 1870s, the specimens in the Museum's collection were individually labelled, and most were on public display in the 'cabinets of curiosities'. In 1877, Edward Palmer was employed to compile the first compilation Register of the existing collections. The Palmer Register was followed by 'A' and 'B' Registers, where all acquisitions were collectively registered. From 1886, separate specialist registers have been maintained, reflecting the major organism or object groups collected by the Museum.
For many years, the Australian Museum was the only museum in Australia. Although its primary collecting interest was in zoology and geology, it also acquired various historical objects and collections - in the 19th century, the Museum held a large numismatics collection (stamps and coins), and collections relating to the early history of the European colonisation.
One of the most significant collections was the Cook Relics. In 1890, the Museum received from the NSW Government a collection of relics of Captain James Cook, which had been displayed at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886. This collection was transferred to the Mitchell Library in 1955. Most of the historical collections have been transferred to the Mitchell Library or the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (the Powerhouse Museum).